On July 23rd, Pastor Joe Nelms prayed before the Nationwide Race at the Nashville Speedway before thousands of NASCAR fans. He called upon the Lord for many things. Among them was a declaration of thankfulness for his “smokin’ hot wife” and his two children, whom he let God and the crowd know were referred to as “the little E’s”. The audience responded with a jovial round of laughter and applause (competing in volume with the pastor as he finished praying). This prayer was racy enough to catch the attention of several media outlets.
Reporters, fans and fundamentalists alike couldn’t help but notice how closely this prayer mirrored Ricky Bobby’s prayer in the 2006 comedy Talladega Nights (a film about a racecar driver whose humorous antics depicted a careless and silly Christian theology). When questioned about his controversial prayer, Nelms responded:
“I want to get somebody’s attention, so that’s been our desire every time we’ve been up there, to try to make an impact on the fans and give them something they’ll remember, and maybe they’ll go home on a Friday night or a Saturday night and say, ‘Maybe I ought to get up and go to church in the morning.”
Later, in a separate interview on Fox News, the pastor added:
“What we were tryin’ to accomplish was to reach out to folks who don’t know Christ…We wanted to present that being a Christian is not the end of living but the beginning of life.”
Pastor Nelms has received a host of praise and criticism on the national stage for his prayer. Why? By and large, America views prayer as a reverent tradition for people who believe in a god. Prayers are void of humor and recognizable language and offered at church services, before sporting events and sometimes meals (but not in schools). Such a colorful display of this ancient practice has left many questions in its wake (for both the saved and the lost) but one most obvious: Was it okay for Joe Nelms to pray like that? There are two things to consider in answering this question: 1.) A voiced desire to reach out to people who don’t know Jesus and 2.) What the Bible teaches about prayer.
I commend Pastor Nelms for wanting to accomplish more than a token nod to the guy upstairs before the race and desiring all spectators to hear something fresh about the Savior of the world. When a Christian is provided an opportunity to address the lost it should not be wasted. I believe he was accurately reading his context and speaking their language (such a prayer wouldn’t fly before a Congressional prayer breakfast). However, I find the means by which he tried to accomplish his goal to lack wisdom.
Jesus preached about prayer at length in Matthew 6: “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners that they may be seen by others.” He continues in verse seven: “And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words.” Craig Blomberg offers his commentary:
“Jesus does not rule out [all public prayer]…Public prayer is very appropriate when practiced with the right motives…What is more, prayer ought not be used to gain plaudits, summarize a sermon or communicate information to an audience but should reflect genuine conversation with God.” (NAC, pg. 117) He goes on to say that Jesus is asking for “simplicity, directness and sincerity in talking to God. (pg. 118)”
A simple but forgotten point here is that prayers are for God: not the ears of the audience, congregation or even our children, but for His only. Regardless of intentions, prayer is not a tool to be wielded to gain favor with men or to make Christianity look hip. As Pastor Nelms stated, his intentions were to “get somebody’s attention” and “give them something to remember.” He has yet to say in any interview that he was offering true thanksgiving to God for the gift of his wife. The pastor might truly desire to reach the lost, but his attempt here gave great glory to his own sense of humor and his spouse, leaving little for the Lord. The evidence for this is the focus in the news…everyone was talking about him and his smokin’ hot wife, not Jesus. His prayer revealed nothing of our redemption through Christ. Everyone in the stadium, Christian and non, could have lifted an ice cold Bud Lite to his prayer with a hearty “amen,” enjoyed the moment and never looked back.
Is it cool for Christians to be thankful for their spouses and voice it to God and others? Absolutely! In an age where marriage is demeaned and mocked there is great impact in highlighting and honoring this relationship, chosen by God to illustrate Christ’s relationship with His church. The key is making your declaration in sincerity, to the Lord, with no ulterior motives and doing so in the proper context.
Can Christians shake up the prayer time-slot when given a chance? Yes, but not for the sake of others. When we pray publicly, it should sound no different than our private prayers. Praying is the declaration of our dependence on God, not an opportunity to give the Christian faith the cool 15 minutes of fame we think it needs. If we have any other motivation than seeking the Lord, our prayers will prove unfruitful, except for a few laughs.
Blomberg, Craig. The New American Commentary, Matthew. (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press), 1992, pg. 117-118.